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Embracing the Non-Traditional: "Face the Music" and The Bronx Museum of the Arts

Published on
February 11

As a new resident of New York, in a city with a seemingly endless list of museums and performance venues, I sometimes find myself sticking to a few places I know well and resisting the urge to try something new. With so much work to get done at school, it can be hard to try new things. However, taking the chance to adventure to new places and explore new kinds of art can lead to incredible experiences that simply can’t come from established traditions. And in a city like New York, there are always adventures to be had.

Last Friday, I took my first adventure to the Bronx Museum of the Arts. This was, incidentally, also my first trip to the Bronx, a borough I had never even thought to visit before. Why would I travel so far to an art museum when there are so many I haven’t explored right here in Manhattan? I thought. However, the museum turned out to be much closer to me than I realized, and navigating the D to the Bronx from Columbia was much easier and quicker than I had expected. I had chosen to visit on that Friday night because I was intrigued by a special First Friday program called “En Masse!” presented by a youth ensemble called “Face the Music.” I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect – the website’s brief description of the event simply mentioned that the performance “embeds musicians within the Museum’s galleries.” My image was of a somber musician, standing alone next to a single painting, playing a classical composition related to the work on display. I could not have been further off from what was in store.

The program was scheduled to begin at 6pm, but I arrived a little early so I would have a chance to explore the museum before the musicians arrived. The museum contained three different rotating exhibitions, including a small hallway of pictures celebrating the community of the Bronx’s Orchard Beach and two larger rooms detailing the diverse art of Paulo Bruscky. I was most intrigued by an exhibit surveying the works of Tony Feher, an American sculptor. Feher revisits the idea of sculpting, working not in marble but in found objects. His exhibit occupied two of the museum’s largest rooms, which were full of intricately arranged objects scattered on the walls, on the floors, and hanging from the ceilings. Some exhibits were given flashy artistic titles, such as a collection of bottles half-full of blue liquid called “It Seemed a Beautiful Day.” Others were deliberately simple and mundane, such as a display of two nearly-empty Diet Coke bottles on a Styrofoam box, aptly called “Two Unfinished Liters of Diet Coke, Side by Side, on a Styrofoam Box”. In other contexts, I have found this kind of art questionable – why not just call my own garbage art? It certainly goes against the established tradition of fine art, which is more focused on the rare and unique skill of the artist. But in this exhibit, I took another reading of it. There was a different kind of skill at work here – a meticulous emphasis on detail and precision. By paying such close attention to these every day objects, Feher is able to give them beauty. One work is a large blue circle made up of hundreds of pieces of painter’s tape, each one affixed just so to create a larger image. Another takes dozens of pennies and arranges them in a line from darkest to lightest. One small alcove off the large room contained only one thing – a jar of marbles, encased in glass. Such a small and seemingly insignificant object was put on a pedestal (literally) and given a place of honor within the museum. Art does not have to be something removed from our daily lives, something that is only found on the walls of museums and mansions. It really is all around us, if we only take the time to look.

A little after six, members of Face the Music emerged onto the gallery space. Instantly, the dynamic of the museum changed. Just a half hour ago the museum was quiet and nearly empty; now, it was brimming with people, sound, and energy. The ensemble was a diverse mix of people as well as instruments – students as old as 18 and as young as 10, instruments ranging from standard orchestral winds to bongos. They were led by Haitian-American violinist and composer Daniel Bernard Roumain, who, rather than conducting them at a distance with a baton, led them by playing along with them and gesturing with his body and his violin. They began by standing in a circle and playing a piece together near the pictures from Orchard Beach. The music they played defies categorization. It is certainly not the standard classical music one might expect to find in an art museum, nor was it a familiar popular style. It was rhythmic, flowing, colorful, virtuosic, and very much theirs. In my music education classes, we have been reading and talking about the idea of a democratic music classroom, one where music is not presented as an unchanging firm tradition, but rather as something that is always collaborative, always changing, and always open to new interpretations. This group seemed to embody these ideals perfectly. You could tell how excited each musician was to be a part of that musical environment – and their excitement was passed on to their growing audience as well. After this group “jam session” (for lack of a better word) Roumain dismissed musicians one by one from the group, who each went to a different exhibit in the gallery and made music inspired by what they saw. Each musician was free to make music however he or she liked. Some walked around to different exhibits alone; others formed small groups and played together. All the students moved freely between the works in an exhibit as though they were a regular museum visitor. Unlike a regular visitor, who generally stops for silent contemplation at a work that interests them, these musicians expressed their interest in a work through music and sound. One musician in particular was very demonstrative and creative – in addition to playing his violin, he would run back and forth between parts of an exhibit, do interpretive dance, and even at one point started leading a parade of students through the lobby chanting “Empty Trash!” The audience was free to walk through the galleries as well. I alternated between focusing on a specific musician or group (all of whom were incredibly talented) and between listening to the entire sonic environment. Again, the music that was made defies description, cannot be confined by a single label, and cannot be analyzed using my traditional knowledge of music theory. That is precisely what made the experience so powerful. It was an experience not just of music, but of community. The music that was heard existed entirely because of the people who were playing it, and the museum in which they played. It can never be duplicated again because that moment will never occur again, at least not in the exact same way. Rather than being a relic from a dead time period constantly resurrected, this music was very much alive.

And all this was only the beginning of the First Friday event at the Bronx Museum. After the gallery performances, there was a more traditional concert in the downstairs auditorium, featuring two pieces by Roumain. The first was a movement from a string quartet, which began with each instrument entering individually (both musically and literally, as each player walked in to their seat in the quartet playing their line). The final piece was a long work for large orchestra, narrator, and a speaking chorus of “The People.” Rather than giving the people clear instruction on what to say, Roumain posed questions to them in the score, and instructed them to say their answers, whatever they were. The ideas of democracy and performer authority carried over into the concert setting, and created an evening of unique and wonderful music making that, as Roumain pointed out, you would not be likely to find at a more established performance venue. Unfortunately, I could not stay for the post-concert events, which continued until 10 pm and included a DJ. But I was very sorry to leave this new community I had discovered in the Bronx. This semester, take a chance and try something new in the city. Go to the Bronx Museum, or catch a concert by Face the Music. You may be surprised by what you’re missing out on.